Lonely Planet’s ‘must visit’ destination, this part of Ireland really does have it all – from bustling towns and cities to peaceful lakelands, lush green forests, towering cliffs, heart stopping beaches and world class attractions.
There's a great energy in Northern Ireland right now and the area is literally crammed full of breath-taking sights both natural and man-made. The Sperrin Mountains, bounded by Strabane and Magherafelt are threaded with streams and small roads; while the granite Mountains of Mourne in County Down are so awe-inspiring that they have been deemed an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and boast over 350 ancient monuments dating from around 7000&-35000 BC.
The Great Outdoors is at its very best here, so add some activity to your holiday - whether you crave gentle strolls with plenty of fresh, clean air along Helen's Bay, in North Down; exhilarating water-sports around the glistening Fermanagh Lakelands; cross-country cycling around Gortin Glen Forest Park in County Tyrone; fly fishing around Corbet Lough, County Down or even sailing around white water coastline at Portrush, County Antrim.
A land rich in history, there are unique cultural traditions embedded in this part of the country, including the Ulster-Scots language of Ullans and the dulcet tones of the Lambeg Drum, fife and fiddle accompanying melodic square dancers and marching bands. Christian Heritage also reverberates around Northern Ireland, with the island's Patron St. Patrick founding his first church in Armagh during the 5th century, and Downpatrick becoming his reputed burial spot after he introduced Christianity to the Irish people.
Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is a city bursting with life and energy. Take a wander around the city and visit the fashionable Cathedral Quarter. Don't forget to visit the Titanic Quarter, take a boat trip on the river and see where the famous ship was constructed.
Further to the northwest, meanwhile, the historic walled city of Londonderry boasts scenic views over the River Foyle and the award-winning Tower Museum, which enriches visitors with its insight into the city's colourful and remarkable history. So follow Lonely Planet's advice and put this amazing place on your must visit list now.
Take the Causeway Coastal Route from Belfast via Carrickfergus, checking out its 800 year old castle on the way, then the A2 to Larne. This route has been rated one of the top five road trips in the world. From here travel north and enjoy the spectacular scenery - at times you're just metres from the sea spray. As you continue on your journey the nine Glens of Antrim will unfold before you. Stop off to explore them, along with the white, windswept beaches. At Glenariff Forest Park take a pit-stop to enjoy the glorious woodland walks. There are beautiful villages dotted along this coast, and we recommend you stop for lunch at the picturesque village of Cushendun. From here, take the road hugging the coastline to Torr Head for views over to the Mull of Kintyre. Returning to the Causeway Coastal Route, head towards Ballycastle before taking the coast road to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, where walking across and back over an 80ft chasm will give you a pure adrenaline rush. Head towards Bushmills, where you can take a tour of the Distillery, and perhaps a dram of whiskey once you've parked your car for the night.
Total mileage: 142km
In the morning head back along the coast road to the Giant's Causeway - you''ll need time to appreciate this awesome feat of nature. Legend has it that the Irish giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) built the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. Heading west take in the ruins of medieval Dunluce Castle, teetering out over the ocean, or breathe in the fresh air at the beaches of Portrush or Portstewart. Look out for the glorious Mussenden Temple overlooking the 9 mile long Benone Strand, before heading on to Londonderry city for an overnight stay.
Total Mileage: 74km
Take time out to walk Londonderry's city walls lined with cannons, taking in the richness of the sights and attractions scattered around the city, which hark back to another era entirely. Then head south on the B48 and A32 towards Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. There's plenty to enrich your journey as you pass through the gloriously scenic Sperrin Mountains; and you can take a small detour to visit the Ulster American Folk Park, just outside Omagh, County Tyrone, which is one of the best open-air museums of its kind, detailing why two million people left Ulster for America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Nearby, Gortin also has a magical forest where the flora and fauna can be viewed in all their glory. Finish your day in Enniskillen by visiting its impressive castle.
Total Mileage: 131km
Potter around the Fermanagh Lakelands for a while, as you’re perfectly placed for magnificent Lough Erne and even a day on the water, where you can savour the purity and wildlife that surrounds you. Then it’s time to head towards Portaferry in County Down (via A4, M1, A49, A24, A25) where you can stay overnight in this pretty waterfront village. Access to the village is via the car ferry from Strangford.
Total Mileage: 166km
Portaferry lies on the edge of Strangford Lough, a breath-taking sea lake. For an insight into this waterway, pop into Exploris Aquarium, where you can find a seal sanctuary for injured or abandoned pups, excellent discovery pools and a space to get up close to marine life. Head north up the east coast for more stunning views. Enjoy watersports or a boat trip, then relax at one of Greyabbey’s teashops and Mount Stewart House, with its much admired gardens. Then it’s back to the buzz of Belfast city where your journey began.
Total Mileage: 46km
And if you have more time…
- Take a wander around Castle Coole, County Fermanagh – one of Ireland’s most sumptuous stately homes; or explore the Marble Arch Caves, County Fermanagh, an underground world of tunnels, rivers and waterfalls.
- Stargaze at the Armagh Planetarium, where you can get stellar with meteorite impacts and space robots.
- Get interactive at W5, the award winning discovery centre at Belfast’s Odyssey, with over 160 exhibits in four dynamic exhibition areas.
- Visit Belleek Pottery on the banks of the River Erne. Home to the world-famous Belleek Fine Parian China.